Agencies considering major chemical plant safety overhaul

An interagency panel created to weigh new chemical safety regulations in response to last April’s deadly explosion in Texas is considering a major overhaul of the way volatile substances are handled and stored, a new federal document shows. 

The Chemical Facility Safety and Security Working Group, a task force made up of top-level officials from a variety of federal agencies, is asking for feedback on an array of potential new rules that could help avert future disasters.

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The agencies offer nine sets of options across several categories, including mandatory — rather than voluntary — new safeguards. The regulations could include a shift to inherently safer technologies and the creation of a third-party audit system.

The working group, led by the secretaries of Homeland Security and Labor, along with the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), stressed that the list of potential actions, released late Friday, is merely a starting point.

“This document is a tool for prompting additional thought and obtaining additional information necessary to further evaluate, refine, and supplement these initial options, and we anticipate that the options may change significantly in the coming months,” the agencies wrote.

Included in the proposal are measures to tighten regulations for the storage and handling of ammonium nitrate, the chemical involved in last April’s fertilizer plant in West, Texas, which killed 15 people and injured more than 200.

The agencies are seeking information about the costs associated with implementing the measures under consideration.

Still, the proposal raised red flags within the industry, where businesses fear the working group will pursue actions “that will further complicate an overly complex regulatory system,” according to a statement from the American Chemistry Council (ACC).

The council said it was encouraged that the agencies incorporated some of the industry’s suggestions in the report, including measures to strengthen coordination between various regulators and improve information sharing between first responders.

But the ACC, which favors shoring up existing rules, is worried that the agencies are considering “a regulatory model that would exceed the authority the agencies have today instead of focusing on how to improve current programs,” according to the statement.

More than 100 groups making up the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters contend that a transition from reactive safeguards to a more preventive set of policies is exactly what is needed to prevent future accidents, or at least minimize their impact.

The group is encouraged by the breadth and scope of the potential actions under consideration, including the incorporation of “inherently safer technologies,” said Rick Hind, who serves as legislative director for Greenpeace, a member of the coalition.

“They’re actually taking a look at the regulatory gaps,” Hind said.

Members of the public and interested parties will have 90 days to weigh in on the potential actions being floated.

President Obama created the working group via executive order on Aug. 1, though the panel's work has been fraught with delays connected to last fall's government shutdown. 

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